Studies Show Gender Stereotypes Harm Relationships

The success of books like, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” has sparked an onslaught of popular literature analyzing the differences between men’s and women’s styles of conducting romantic relationships. Several recent studies have analyzed the way gender stereotypes affect relationships, and the consensus is that, not only do gender stereotypes harm relationships; people who believe men and women are innately different are more likely to behave in gender-stereotypical ways. Perhaps most importantly, when people believe in and behave like gender stereotypes, they are more likely to be unhappy in their relationships.

Gender Stereotypes and Fake Experts
In her book, “The Myth of Mars and Venus,” Deborah Cameron addresses the fact that gender stereotypes have made their way into popular relationship advice. As it turns out, much of this advice is based on scant evidence, and several of the “experts” giving this advice have fake or nonexistent degrees. Several studies purporting to find gender differences in behavior have subsequently been retracted or undermined. The remaining “gender difference” studies tend toward demonstrating that gender differences are learned rather than innate. A study authored by Perrin, et. al, buttresses this claim by uncovering that gender differences are fluid, flexible, and largely socially constructed. Thus, when advice givers base relationship advice on alleged innate differences between men and women, they are basing their advice on nonexistent and shoddy evidence.

How Gender Stereotypes Affect Relationships
Several studies have shown that gender stereotypes negatively affect romantic relationships. Journalist Cordelia Fine recently authored an exhaustive overview of the research in gender differences. She found over and over again that people who believed men and women are innately different were more likely to be unhappy in their relationships. Further, people who believed in innate differences between men and women were more likely to behave in gender stereotypical ways. Their romantic partners found these behaviors frustrating, annoying, and confusing. A study in attachment styles also found more unhappiness in gender-traditional couples. When men had a more distant attachment style, for example, women were more likely to report unhappiness. The happiest couples were those in which both men and women are strongly attached, emotionally stable, and able to talk openly about emotions and romantic feelings.

Why Gender Stereotypes Harm Romantic Relationships
The literature clearly indicates that gender stereotypes and gender-traditional behavior harm relationships, but why is this? The simplest answer is that, when men and women behave in wildly different ways, they are unable to understand one another. A man who is constantly distant is simply unable to meet the needs of his partner for closeness. When he reads in a book by a fake expert that this distance is “natural” he’s more likely to be distant, which will result in more frustration in his relationship. Men and women aren’t from different planets, or even from different countries. Moreover, much relationship advice premised on supposed differences isn’t advice at all. Instead, it simply tells men and women to accept the differences and move on. Poor communication, lack of intimacy, inability to express feelings, and other issues are not minor frustrations; these are serious relationship problems that can be remedied, and advice to merely ignore the problem will likely increase rather than decrease relationship frustration over time.

How to Avoid Gender Stereotypes
When I first started dating, I knew that I did not want to ever have a relationship that was gender-traditional and full of gender stereotypes. The idea of constantly pursuing an emotionally absent man sounded to me like a horrible way to live. I wanted meaningful support and companionship from my partner. My fiancee and I have done a few things to help us avoid the damage gender stereotypes can cause. We’re both, for example, aware that there is pressure on women and men to behave in different ways. Simply being mindful of this pressure can help us both to stop and think before we act. We’re also both very careful to avoid stereotyping the other’s behavior; I never claim he is doing something because he is a man, or say he can’t understand something because he is a man. Perhaps most importantly, communication is highly valued in our relationship and we talk through problems, whatever they may be. By aiming to keep your relationship open and honest, you can avoid gender stereotypes and combat them if and when they accidentally arise. You and your partner should resolve together to avoid falling into gender stereotypes and instead behave as individuals who love each other. Research and experience indicate that, by doing so, you will be substantially happier.

Sources:
Delusions of Gender
Gender and Working Models of Attachment
Aligning Mars and Venus
The Myth of Mars and Venus